Nick Knowles and the BBC TV DIYSOS team

Good Work, from the Inside Out

Nick Knowles, DIYSOS

Nick Knowles on 'How to Be Good at Work'

A few years ago, whilst working in the States, I heard the term ‘disruptor’ for the first time. Used in a business context, it describes someone who makes people stop and think, explore a different perspective and alter their behaviour in a positive way. It was a term that immediately resonated for me, as I think I’ve been doing just that my whole life.

In my teens I was a disruptor, but not one that was welcomed or seen as positive in the education system at the time. Let’s face it, all skills need honing and, early on, this disruptor was more disruptive. Consequently, and in retrospect, my creativity and questioning was simply seen as trouble by my teachers, who saw to it that my educational ambition ended abruptly at 16. A situation that has given me a deep determination to take risks and work twice as hard to make up ground – for whose benefit I’ve never been entirely sure.

Growing up on a council estate in West London, my dad worked two, sometimes three jobs at a time, so the work ethic was built in and it’s his moral and ethical values that I hope I have also inherited.

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

From If by Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ was my father’s favourite poem and it means a lot to me and many in my family. The lines really resonate with me: to place others before ourselves and, by empowering them, we enable our own abilities and talents.

With little in the way of paper qualifications and bags of ideas, I headed towards the creative industry and TV journalism in Australia before returning to the UK. With no formal training I always approach whatever I am doing instinctively and in a way which I believe to be right, not just for me, but for those I work with and impact upon. I’ve often heard the line: “that’s just your opinion” fired back at me, odd really, as I’ve always wondered who’s opinion they’d like me to proffer.

My industry is full of risk and even after a long career it’s accepted that you are only as good as your last viewing figures. I’m a ‘considered risk taker’ and my take is know everything you can then jump. If you have to convince others, then jump first and jump with confidence. This has often clashed with the way the ‘rule-makers’ like to work in my industry and it’s also true in other industries I’ve worked alongside.

Media is a cut throat business

People being afraid of making mistakes can be stifling to creativity and that’s quite understandable when your job is on the line; however, I believe that sometimes you have to accept failure in order to free up real creativity and the big wins further down the line.

One of the hardest parts of my job within the Media and various charities I’ve been involved with is command and control silo working: where people like to build empires around their specialism in a misguided attempt to retain power and influence. There is no getting away from it, sadly, Media can be a cut throat business and it’s no surprise to me that stats from MoralDNA™ Profiling show Media as one of the most fearful environments in which to work. There is little trust, little love. But, it doesn’t have to be that way.

The idea that good news is not good television is a myth. It’s just that good news television is rarely as well prepared or made as the scary stuff. I believe we are in a new era and it is trust, respect, truth and, I’d go as far as to say, love that has created one of the most popular television programmes today, the BBC series DIYSOS.

Building community – good work and great television

Television often makes the mistake of thinking it’s the most important thing happening wherever it is. Reversing the normal way of approaching a television programme, where the concept, producer and bottom line rules, instead of ‘top down’ I’m proud to say that on DIYSOS we work from the inside out.

At the heart of DIYSOS are the families who are in real need. Who through circumstance are really struggling, often with complex medical issues. Next, we have our volunteers: the men and women who arrive in their hundreds when the call goes out, bringing with them skills, tools, building materials and an amazing attitude to see the job done and done right. And, lastly, we have the machinery of making a television programme, the crew and production decisions to ensure we get it up on screen.

… there is no money involved in the build. Everything is donated: time, skills and materials.

Ultimately, my role is to help tell the story, to join the dots for the viewer but we always let the families and the volunteers lead the way.

We are often asked how we squeeze 100 workers into a small semi-detached in Barnsley. The answer is we try not to interfere. The skilled trades are very good at what they do, getting on with the job and each other, we let them sort it out. We trust their expertise and initiative and they genuinely blossom and become more creative through that trust. We are all in it together; all in there sleeves rolled up and working alongside each other. It’s also worth underlining that there is no money involved. Everything is donated: time, skills and materials. And no one advertises their company, many don’t even want to be featured on screen.

I have found it an incontrovertible fact that people want to feel good about themselves. They want to do a worthwhile job, they want respect and companionship. They are looking for community and enjoy community endeavour. They will work 14, 16, 18 hours a day for a cause they believe in, to simply help another human being. Someone in circumstances less fortunate than their own. It’s a ‘do as you would be done by’ ethos. One of the most often quoted phrases on site is: “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

From talking to the volunteers there is an overwhelming feeling of a loss of community; a disengagement of neighbours, of common purpose that DIYSOS taps into, we simply bring a ball of gravity; become a catalyst. We don’t create community, it’s there below the surface straining to burst through. We simply show it happening.

The programme has grown from adapting rooms to full house refits, huge new builds of community and respite centres, and the rebuild of a whole derelict street for veterans. We are also now spreading the initiative beyond television from the UK to the US and I hope there is a great deal more we can achieve. I want to involve many more people and re-awaken our slumbering community spirit.

All this is testament to the fact that the majority of us want to do good work. We want to be of use to others, be respected, needed, and to feel the satisfaction of a job well done. We want our leaders to get stuck in with us. We want to behave as adults and take responsibility. We want to enjoy our own empowerment in a common cause for the good of others, which, ultimately, is in all our own best interests.

That’s my kind of good work and that’s what I am going to continue to do. Care to join me?

Nick Knowles –  @MrNickKnowles

‘How to Be Good at Work’ is produced under the Creative Commons Licence. 4.0. It is a not-for-profit, free for personal use, educational platform where we promote and share learning and good ideas about work. 

Find out more about Nick’s work here:

Manteo Transatlantic foundation

Nick took the MoralDNA™  Profile and came out a mix of Philosopher and Angel. 

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